A few months ago, a couple of eager patrons came to the Local History division seeking information about Rochester’s flag—not the blue flag emblazoned with the ubiquitous flour city/flower city logo, they specified–but the official city flag of Rochester. I was familiar with the flag in question though I’d only ever seen a postcard of it and had never come across one in person.
Sharing my patrons’ curiosity about the history and current whereabouts of this mysterious pennant, I later did a little digging of my own…
The idea of an official city flag was first proposed in 1910 when Rochester was trying to establish itself as a major convention center.
Unveiled in September of that year, the blue white and gold flag designed by David E. Spear Jr. showcased the 400-year old Rochester family Coat of Arms, which featured a crane above three crescents (associated in heraldry with fertility and prosperity).
The flag’s colours also bore symbolic significance. As Mayor Hiram Edgerton noted: “the blue represents our exceptional water and electric power; the white, the cleanliness of our city; the gold, our financial strength and industrial prosperity.”
The design met with criticism almost immediately. An attendee of the unveiling who was well versed in heraldry observed that the color order did not conform to heraldic laws. He also raised questions about the practicality of including an official coat of arms on a municipal flag.
“Is this flag to become popular?” he inquired, “If so, is not the Rochester arms rather complicated, making the price beyond the reach of citizens generally? Why not eliminate them on common or bunting flags for general use?”
This consideration may have influenced the City’s hesitancy in adopting the design as the official Rochester flag. Though first unveiled in 1910, the flag was not formally recognized until 1934, upon prompting from members of the Rochester Historical Society.
But even this official designation seemingly did not lead to the flag’s widespread use. By the late 1950s, only 4 local sites displayed the flag and no one at City Hall had any knowledge of the flag’s history. Nor were they able to settle the ongoing debate among Rochester’s citizens as to whether the bird featured on the flag was a chicken or a duck. (It was neither).
When the blue flag featuring the Flour City/Flower City seal was revealed in 1979, Rochester’s official flag receded further from public view and public memory.
A 2004 Democrat & Chronicle article discussing the flag’s poor rating from the North American Vexillological Association listed just two places where it was still on display: City Hall and the Local History division of the Central Library.
This news came as a surprise to me since I’ve been working in that very area of the library in one capacity or another for a few years and have never seen nor heard anyone mention the flag in question. After my searches through the division’s special collections proved unfruitful, I asked City Historian Christine Ridarsky if she knew anything about the flag’s whereabouts.
To my delight, she unearthed the requested item from the storage closet of the Office of the City Historian (which happens to be located in the Local History division). Neither Christine nor the Local History division’s previous manager had any clue as to how the flag ended up there, but it became clear why it was no longer on display when I unfurled it.
Torn and frayed in one corner and blemished in spots, the discolored flag has clearly seen better days.
Tattered though it may be, the banner is likely one of the few official city flags still in existence and serves as a lesser known piece of Rochester’s past.